When Employees Don't Complain

How to recognize hidden health risks and correct them.

U.S. employers spend nearly $1 billion a week on wage payments and medical care for workers hurt on the job, according to the 2005 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, which estimates that employers paid out $50.8 billion in 2003.

But what can you do about conditions at your plant, so that your employees are injured both less often and less seriously? One key thing is to really listen to what your employees are saying about their working conditions, if they'll tell you (or even tell themselves.)

Ironically, having great employees has a big unrecognized downside. Every manufacturer wants to have hard-working, highly motivated employees who want to keep working and making money, benefiting both the employee and the company. Like baseball players of old, they don't complain about "minor" aches and pains. They suck it up and keep going.

This is particularly true of pieceworkers. (The more they "make," the more they make.) But neither pieceworkers nor contented hourly workers want to stop working and stop earning. So, they may not pay attention to what their bodies are telling them. They may compensate for their discomfort in one part of their body by straining another part of their body. Worse, they may intentionally ignore their problems in order to keep the work and money flowing. Either way -- they won't tell you.

But stoic employees who don't complain don't provide valuable feedback. You might not find out until years later that their workplace was ergonomically unsound, when serious cases of repetitive-motion injuries like carpal-tunnel syndrome and other arm, hand and back injuries start to crop up. You may not know about dangerous noise levels until workers start losing their hearing. It may take years of exposure to toxic chemicals, dusts, etc. before a worker is diagnosed with silicosis, emphysema or other pulmonary disorders.

By then, it's too late. Besides being extremely expensive, such injuries ruin worker morale and can bring bad publicity. Injuring workers, however inadvertently, isn't right.

So what can you do when your good workers don't complain?

Don't take lack of complaints to mean lack of hidden problems. Probe beneath the surface. Become a workplace detective.

Do employees have to shout to make one another heard? Are they coughing frequently? Is there fine dust in the air? Are there contaminants settling on equipment? Observe the worker's station. Is he or she struggling to hold the piece? Is he or she showing any signs of discomfort such as squinting or wringing hands?

Talk to employees to see how they feel. Are they taking aspirin and ibuprofen to kill the nagging minor pains?

Further investigation and evaluation from a professional loss control consultant may be warranted. Someone promising confidentiality, from outside the company, is more likely to elicit candid comments because good workers don't want their boss to think they're complainers.

A loss-control professional can spot potential problems fairly readily. Next, conduct industrial-hygiene testing and employ an ergonomics specialist to see if those suspicions are truly problems.

An ergonomic expert can easily measure and evaluate employees' workstations and observe them working. A certified industrial hygienist should measure ambient and impact noise levels using equipment such as noise-level meters and dosimeters. Standard testing equipment such as pumps and filters should be used to take air samples for airborne contaminants. The samples should be evaluated by a certified lab and the final analysis presented in an official report comparing your exposures to standards. Recommendations can then be developed to control your exposures.

The results should provide conclusive evidence. If your workers aren't complaining because there aren't any problems, congratulations. However, investigation usually uncovers at least one shortcoming that probably will result in worker injuries over the long term.

There are two ways to attack the problem: redesign the workplace to eliminate hazards, or give workers personal protective equipment like respirators and hearing protection. The former is always the better solution whenever feasible. While personal protection works, it usually creates other hazards, like slips and falls and limited vision. The gear is cumbersome and often hot and uncomfortable. In addition, management cannot always be there to supervise the employee who may decide not to wear it at all.

"Engineering out" problems can involve putting up noise barriers to reduce noise and installing ventilation systems to bring air quality up to OSHA standards.

Poor ergonomic design can be a bit subtler to detect than air contamination, pollution or noise. One of the most common problems is that one size does not fit all. A workstation that's well designed for an average-height male can be agonizing for a short woman or a Shaq-sized guy.

Equipment should be made adjustable as possible to fit each worker individually. Chairs should be fully adjustable, with adjustable seat height and back height. Employees should be able to raise or lower worktables to a comfortable height. Footrests and ergonomic keyboards can greatly reduce physical stress.

It may be impossible to completely remove the risk of repetitive injury for manufacturing workers doing repetitive assembly tasks, but good ergonomic design can greatly reduce it. Furthermore, employees should be encouraged to report physical problems. Early intervention can usually prevent a sore wrist from turning into carpal-tunnel syndrome or a backache from blooming into a debilitating injury.

Improving worker health and safety isn't a one-time effort. It takes continuing effort and diligence; otherwise, it can easily fall to the bottom of priorities. Besides taking commitment, it takes money. But today's investment will produce major savings down the road.

If you have motivated, productive workers, count your blessings. And don't assume their silence means all is well.

Peter Scala is a senior loss-control engineer with E.G. Bowman Company, New York City, an insurance brokerage and loss-control consulting firm that serves manufacturers and other businesses. He can be reached at [email protected].

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